Friday, 18 October 2013

By the pricking of my thumbs

I promised some Bradbury, and here he is at his very best...

Something Wicked this way Comes is a book which could only ever have been written by Ray Bradbury.  Its filigreed language, eccentric structure (chapter 31 consists of one sentence: “Nothing much else much happened, all the rest of that night”.) are all his own, as is his inherent understanding of the dichotomy of youth and age in all of us.
In simplest terms it is a 1962 fantasy novel (one of Bradbury’s comparatively few as he dealt most prolifically in short stories) about two 14 year old friends, Jim and Will, and their encounter with a macabre travelling carnival which sets up in their town one dark autumn night.  Led by the aptly named Mr Dark, the carnival lures customers with the promise of granting their secret wishes, only to trap them as exhibits and performers twisted by their own desires.  Will’s ageing father Charles Halloway helps the boys find the knowledge and courage to overcome the carnival’s evil, while struggling to resist Dark’s offer to restore his own lost youth.

Someone once tried to explain to me that Shakespeare is meant to be spoken, and heard aloud. I tend to think Bradbury is the opposite, the rich imagery he conjures is meant to swirl up at you out of a printed page.  This makes me doubly suspicious of the Disney film adaptation, which I have yet to see, if I can bring myself to.  Apparently Bradbury himself was happy with it, but as much as I admire Jonathan Pryce, my Mr Dark is always a slightly more loquacious version of Daniel Day Lewis’s ‘Bill the Butcher’, from Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. 

I’m a relatively slow reader (as editors who used to give me books to review have discovered), and this is particularly true with Bradbury. My eye continually slides back over sentences and whole paragraphs, because the temptation to savour them again before moving on is just too strong. And this adds to my belief that, also unlike Mr Shakespeare, the play isn’t the thing so much as the language Bradbury uses on the way through it.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read Something Wicked this Way Comes, but am always hard pressed to remember the narrative as a story.  That’s not to say that it isn’t a magical, beautifully told tale, because it certainly is, but it’s the individual parts, passages and sequences which impress themselves on my mind...  Here’s an example of the way Bradbury can make a building which might otherwise be dull to boys the age of the stories young heroes, seem like…well, like this:

“Out in the world, not much happened. But here in the special night, a land bricked with paper and leather, anything might happen, always did. Listen! and you heard ten thousand people screaming so high only dogs feathered their ears. A million folk ran toting cannons, sharpening guillotines; Chinese, four abreast marched on forever. Invisible, silent, yes, but Jim and Will had the gift of ears and noses as well as the gift of tongues. This was a factory of spices from far countries. Here alien deserts slumbered. Up front was the desk where the nice old lady, Miss Watriss, purple-stamped your books, but down off away were Tibet and Antarctica, the Congo. There went Miss Wills, the other librarian, through Outer Mongolia, calmly toting fragments of Peiping and Yokohama and the Celebes.”

I’ve mentioned at the Bradbury’s talent for addressing the spring and autumn of life by contrasting them, but never making them mutually exclusive.  If that passage paints a picture of the world through the eyes and other senses of youth, then this next one depicts a far darker image. Marshalling their defenses in the darkened library, Will’s father tries to prepare and inspire the boys with what he’s uncovered about the carnival from his own long lifetime’s worth of experience and knowledge.
“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by deathwatch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the Pyramids seasoning it with other people's salt and other people's cracked hearts. They coursed Europe on the White Horses of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale. Some must have been lazing clowns, foot props for emperors, princes, and epileptic popes. Then out on the road, Gypsies in time, their populations grew as the world grew, spread, and there was more delicious variety of pain to thrive on. The train put wheels under them and here they run down the log road out of the Gothic and baroque; look at their wagons and coaches, the carving like medieval shrines, all of it stuff once drawn by horses, mules, or, maybe, men.”

I have resisted giving much in the way of a synopsis because, as I’ve said, to me it’s not the most important thing.  I’m sure you could find a perfectly good one on the back of the Disney film DVD case. Bradbury was the first, and perhaps only writer I’ve ever plagiarised, his pulse-stirring evocation of the mighty tyrannosaurus Rex (from the collection Golden Apples of the Sun) found it’s way wholesale into one of my third form essays.  I’m not proud, and it’s no justification, but they do say if you’re going to steal, take from the best.  And in case you might worry that Something Wicked This Way Comes is just another nostalgia-drenched lament to lost boyhood, consider these musings of the age-plagued Charles Halloway as he lies awake next to his wife.
“Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make the flesh that holds fast and binds eternity. They live inside the gift, know power, accept, and need not mention it. Why speak of time when you are Time, and shape the universal moments, as they pass, into warmth and action?”

Once again, a surprisingly mature viewpoint in a story ostensibly about two childhood friends.
And now, so as to not move too far out of the darkness which permeates this wonderful story, I’m going to end with the beginning:
“One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight. At that time, James Nightshade of 97 Oak Street was thirteen years, eleven months, twenty-three days old. Next door, William Halloway was thirteen years, eleven months, and twenty-four days old. Both touched toward fourteen; it almost trembled in their hands. And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young any more...”

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